Robert Lynd, a 19th century Irish writer and essayist once said that, “It is almost impossible to remember how tragic a place this world is when one is playing golf.” Golf is a very popular sport, and in 2008, the number of golf courses worldwide was over 35,000. The United States of America accounts for the highest number of golf courses in any country, with 50% of all courses located within its borders. It’s no surprise than, the estimated number of golfers in America is nearly 29.5 million. Many regard it as a lifelong sport that requires skill, finesse, focus and years of practice to master. Its rules seem simple on the surface–to hit a ball into a hole using the minimum number of strokes–but as one begins to play golf, complexities and nuances become apparent. With so many enthusiasts, maybe you are wondering, “where did golf come from–what’s the history of golf?”
The truth is that the history of golf is hotly debated, but there is a good deal of information to draw from when attempting to map out the origin and history of this sport that is beloved by so many. Although, it’s a tenuous love; while Robert Lynd may have waxed philosophic about golf’s better qualities, Mark Twain famously lamented that, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”
13th-14th Centuries: Golf’s Beginnings
The earliest recorded instance of golf being played with rudimentary rules was in 13th century Netherland, in 1297. It was known as colf, which was the word for “club” or “stick” in Flemish, and resembled golf in that the object was to hit a leather ball with a colf or kolf towards a target, using the lowest number of strokes possible.
Colf was mentioned again in 1360, when the council of Brussels banned it. If you were caught playing at colf in 14th century Brussels, you could expect to pay 20 shillings and forfeit your overcoat!
It’s difficult to discern just how much this early incarnation of golf resembles the one we are familiar with today, largely because the information we have is apocryphal. Some argue, however, that this game of “proto-golf” is the true origin of modern golf.
15th-18th Century Scotland: The Birth Of Modern Golf
Despite the fact that the early history of golf is a little hazy, there’s one thing golfers mostly agree on. Golf, as we play it today, on an 18-hole course and with a club, originated in Scotland. Scotland also lays claim to the oldest known golf course, the Musselburgh Links, where you can still play–as Mary, Queen of Scots was purported to in 1567–today.
Part of what makes Scotland a good candidate for golf’s true place of origination is that unlike the apocrypha that comes from early Low Country colf, there are recorded accounts of people playing golf and rules dating as far back as 1672.
In addition, golf is mentioned even earlier in multiple Acts of the Scottish Parliament as early as 1457. Like the Dutch before them, the Scots also had it out for golf, or gowf as it is written in the Parliamentary Acts. In fact, the first mention of the sport was an edict prohibiting it. It seems King James decried that golf was a distraction from more useful physical activities: archery practice and military drills.
In 1479, all-out bans were enacted, since golf was considered to be an “unprofitable sport”. Mary, Queen of Scots, was even accused of violating the golf ban–especially shocking, since golf was considered to be “wholly unsuitable for women.” I’m sure Stacy Lewis would disagree.
The oldest full set of rules comes from Scotland, too. Compiled by the Company of Gentlemen Golfers in Edinburgh in 1744, they are known as the Leith Rules and can still be perused today at The National Library of Scotland, where they survive to this day. You will likely recognize similarities between the rules that we use in modern golf to the Leith Rules, including:
“If a Ball be stopp’d by any Person, Horse, Dog or anything else, The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.”
“If your Ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & bringing it behind the hazard and Teeing it, you may play it with any Club and allow your Adversary a Stroke for so getting out your Ball.”
In addition, golf equipment in those times bear a rudimentary resemblance to the equipment used in golf today–the balls were known as “featheries” and were made of sewn leather spheres stuffed with feathers. Early golf clubs were made of wood and it is unlikely that there were varying clubs for different swings–like putters and irons–when the sport was first played.
Scotland remains a popular golf destination with entire agencies dedicated to golf vacation packages that promise to reconnect the avid golfer with golf’s origins, giving them an opportunity to experience the history of golf firsthand.
The 19th Century Golf Craze
In 1603, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales likely introduced golf to England, playing at the Blackheath Club in London. After golf leapt across the Scottish-English border, there was no stopping it. It soon spread to British colonies as far flung as Australia and India. The Royal Calcutta golf club was formed in 1829, and still operating today. By the end of the 19th century, golf was spreading like wildfire, more courses were built, and countless golf societies and clubs were formed. Many still exist today, and bear their lineage very proudly.
The 19th century also brought the evolution of the golf ball. “Featheries” were unwieldy, costly to make, and easy to damage. The new type of ball was called a Gutty, taking its name from the material used to make it: the Gutta-percha tree. The sap of the tree can be used to make latex, which made Gutty balls not just more durable, but allowed them to be produced faster as well. That’s a pretty good thing, because the demand for golf continued to increase worldwide. Soon the Gutty was overtaken by the popularity of the “Bramble” ball, so named for its resemblance to the bramble fruit.
Golf clubs, on the other hand, were still made of wood, hickory in particular, which was prized for its stiffness and durability. During the early 19th century, just before golf become achieved widespread popularity, hickory was being imported to Scotland from North America, primarily for the purpose of making golf clubs.
In the United States, the first golf courses were built in 1886–two, in Florida–and the sport proved to be so popular that by 1910, there were 267, and the United States Golf Association was formed.
20th Century and Beyond
In the 20th century, golf exploded in North America. Golf courses continued to be built, though there was a brief interruption during The Great Depression. By 1940, however, golf hit its stride again and at the end of the late 21st century, over 5,000 courses were in operation.
The golf ball as we know it today also took shape in the 20th century, when the Bramble ball made way for “Meshies”, balls with latex cores and wound with mesh. The dimpled surface, too, became popular after its patent expired in the 1940s. Today, golf balls have precisely 350-400 dimples on their surfaces, all in the name of advanced aerodynamics! Golf clubs began to resemble what we use today, with chipping, putting, and wedge-head golf clubs all advertised in early 20th century publications. Today, you can purchase clubs made of forged carbon steel, carbon fiber, or even titanium, with price tags hitting the $9,000 mark for a single driver. Although, its worth noting that even the most expensive clubs won’t give you a perfect swing.
Additionally, the 21st century saw some progress for women in the sport, a demographic largely ignored in the early history of golf. Even though the first women’s golf club was formed 1867 in Scotland, golf was still largely considered a men’s sport. The inclusion of women in golf soon proved to be quite lucrative, however, with the Shinnecock Golf Club in New York developing a 9-hole ladies golf course shortly after opening its membership registry to women in the late 20th century.
It wasn’t until 1950, however, that the Ladies Professional Golf Association, or LPGA was formed. It was the first of its kind, and awarded a $50,000 prize to the winner of the first LPGA tournament winner. Today, the Ladies Professional Golf Association awards more than $41 million to its tour champions!
Whether you view golf through rose-colored lenses like Robert Lynd, or relate more with Twain’s snark, there’s no denying the popularity of golf as it is played today. Now that you know the history of golf, where will you go from here? Maybe you’d like to form an amateur golf club of your own, or perhaps you’ll want to delve into the brain-training techniques you can use to hone your game.